Senate budget vote fails as stalemate starts to cut into services | SierraSun.com

Senate budget vote fails as stalemate starts to cut into services

Steve Lawrence
Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO (AP) ” Prospects for quickly ending the stalemate over the state’s budget dimmed Wednesday as the Senate failed again to pass the $145 billion spending plan, now 6 1/2 weeks overdue.

The budget bill failed 26-14, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass. It also fell short in the Senate on July 21.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, placed the responsibility on the chamber’s minority Republicans, who have a long list of conditions they say need to be met.

“This is a Republican problem,” he said after the failed vote. “It is going to have to be solved by Republicans.”

Wednesday’s vote came as the Senate met for the first time in 11 days and after state Controller John Chiang said he could not pay the $1.1 billion owed for July to community colleges, special education programs, nursing homes and vendors that contact with state government.

He said he will be unable to pay $2.1 billion due in August unless there is a budget agreement by the end of the month. A wait of weeks, rather than days, is looking increasingly likely.

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Perata said he would not call the Senate back into session until Republicans could deliver the two GOP votes needed to send the budget to the governor. He said it’s likely the chamber will not reconvene until Aug. 20, the end of the Legislature’s summer recess.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, said his caucus was willing to keep working with Democrats and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican, to break the impasse. Republicans wanted the Senate to reconvene Thursday morning, but that motion failed.

“We’re not going to settle for a budget that’s half-baked,” Ackerman said.

The 15-member Senate Republican caucus has maintained a united front against the spending plan since the Assembly passed the budget bill July 20 and left for its summer recess. But on Wednesday, there was a crack.

Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, broke ranks with his caucus and voted for the budget bill. One more Republican vote in the 40-member chamber is needed to approve it.

Maldonado said he had been warned that voting for the budget could cost him his seat in the next election. But he said he found no valid reason for holding up a budget with the new fiscal year already a month old.

Maldonado said the spending plan lowers the state’s deficit, creates a $3.6 billion reserve fund and fully funds education without raising taxes.

“I think a vote for this budget is a vote for fiscal responsibility for the people of California,” he said on the Senate floor. “If I lose my election because I voted for a balanced budget that doesn’t raise taxes, then that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Speaking to reporters after the floor session, Ackerman downplayed Maldonado’s concerns, saying he would continue to campaign and raise money for him.

Republicans want a balanced budget and have held out for $700 million in spending cuts to eliminate the deficit in the current fiscal year.

They have warned that the state is in a precarious financial situation and must balance its books to avoid deep budget problems in the future. The deficit for the 2008-09 fiscal year is projected to be more than $5 billion.

Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, said a combination of a cooling economy and overspending has brought the state to the brink of a “mammoth budget deficit,” such as the one that propelled the recall campaign against former Gov. Gray Davis.

“By adopting this budget, you’re running a very serious risk of running out of money before the end of the year,” McClintock said. “We’re going to be facing quite a challenge six months from now.”

Republicans also were using their leverage on the budget vote to gain traction on several other issues important to them.

They want any budget deal to include a separate guarantee that protects local governments from environmental lawsuits filed by the state. That demand came after Attorney General Jerry Brown sued San Bernardino County because he claimed its long-range planning did not adequately account for the effects of development on global warming.

Republicans fear Brown’s actions will force a halt to housing and road projects.

On Wednesday, Brown said the Republicans were hostile to the landmark global warming law the state passed last year and were using the issue to “hold the budget of California hostage to their petty and narrow demands.”

He said his office has already worked out an arrangement with San Bernardino County.

The Senate GOP caucus also is demanding more say in how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation bond money. And it wants deep cuts ” perhaps as much as $300 million ” to CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program.

Schwarzenegger has offered to use his veto power to bring the budget deficit to zero but has been unable to sway more Senate Republicans.

He said he was “very disappointed” the Senate failed to approve the budget. Without it, he said vendors that supply the state cannot be paid, the state’s credit rating could suffer, and action on other major issues could be delayed.

“Budgets are never easy, especially when revenues are down like this year,” he said in a statement. “However, the budget approved by the Assembly is a responsible budget that fully funds education and public safety, puts aside the biggest reserve fund in memory and pays down our debt.”

Without a signed budget, the controller’s office said it could not pay $326.6 million to community colleges; $170 million to school districts for programs such as special education and summer school; $140 million to companies that sell products to the state; and $300 million to preschool and day care programs.

The Department of Health Care Services said it is not able to pay $227 million owed to hospitals, nursing homes and clinics for treating Medi-Cal recipients. However, the controller can keep reimbursing nurses, doctors and pharmacists.

Payments have stopped for state elected officials and their top aides. While other state employees are being paid, they are not receiving a 3.4 percent raise that was to begin with the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

Among those not being paid is Amy Phenix, a clinical psychologist from Cambria, near the state mental hospital at Atascadero.

She coordinates 78 psychologists and psychiatrists who evaluate imprisoned sex offenders to recommend whether they should be sent to state mental health centers for additional treatment after their release from prison.

“Our last check was two to three weeks ago,” Phenix said. “I’ve heard a lot of complaints. Many of them, almost their entire livelihood is conducting these evaluations.”

Evaluators earn $3,200 for each inmate, and a typical full-time evaluator conducts eight to 12 each month, she said. They are threatening to work for other states that have similar programs, or to turn to private practice, she said.

Republicans offered to help pass emergency appropriations to provide money to schools, but the motion failed Wednesday in a Senate vote. Perata responded by saying they should simply vote to support the budget.

The spending plan, approved by the Assembly on July 20, includes general fund spending of about $103 billion, $1 billion less than Schwarzenegger had proposed. Republicans say that is still at least $700 million more than what the state can afford.

The overall budget figure of $145 billion includes special obligation funds and money to repay bonds the state has sold in past years.

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Associated Press Writer Don Thompson contributed to this report.